Abdul chacha had just finished his Magrib prayers and was folding his prayer mat, looking hungrily at the kebabs his wife was grilling. He was expecting close friends over for dinner and thus, had bought the best mutton possible. Beef wasn’t available these days, as he would have preferred, but nothing was going to dampen his spirits today. It was drizzling which made it the perfect weather to relish kebabs. This year the heat in Gujarat had been unbearable. So the early rains in their village was a reason enough to celebrate. Chachi was also happy to see her husband in such a good mood, as that would assure a good Eidi from him soon. She handed him a tiny piece of kebab to taste, “Mashaallah Begum, your hands have magic!” Chahcha poured compliments, more to the kebabs and less to chachi. His expression said it all. He was enjoying the mouth watering delicious taste and smells with his eyes shut, when he heard quick and loud knocks at the door.
“Begum, the smell of your kebabs has pulled our guests towards our house before time it seems!”
Laughing at his own joke, as Chachi went in to drape a dupatta over her head, he opened the door, and his laughter came to an abrupt halt.
“Do you know where Akram Malik stays?”
Three young men, tall and strong, dressed in kurtas and pants, with a long red tika on their foreheads were standing at the door. The white holy thread was showing from under their kurtas. Their appearance and obvious identity sent a shiver down chacha’s spine. The man standing in front asked, this time a little louder.
“Do you know where Akram Malik stays?”
“Sorry no. No. Ummm… never heard of this name in our area at least.” said Chacha, trying his best to sound convincing.
The boy standing in the front turned his face a bit towards the other boys and gave a crooked smile, “Uncle doesn’t know it seems. Come let’s go and find him ourselves.” Saying this much, they left.
Chachi came from behind as chacha was hurriedly shutting the door.
“What happened? Who was it? Why are you looking so pale?”
“Huh? Nothing. No one. Begum, please can you get me some water.”
The three boys; Balraam, Yogi and Narain, not more than 25 years of age, were on a look out for Akram Malik and it looked like they won’t leave any stone unturned for this purpose. Even though it was alternating between heavy rains and drizzling, they continued asking around in the village for the whereabouts of Akram Malik. Their red tikas had run down their faces, leaving a faded trail across their forehead and their holy threads were standing out more prominently through their wet clothes.
They stopped at a tea stall and demanded their answers from Omar, the chaiwala.
“Tell us where Akram Malik stays.” Yogi said, as Balaram helped himself to a butter cookie from the glass jar.
Omar looked them into their eyes and said,
“I don’t know. Abu kasam! I have never heard of any person with this name in my entire life, Sahib. One more biskut Sahib?”
They asked the vegetable vendor Najma who refused to even look at them and instead, picked up her basket and walked away as fast as she could, almost stumbling over the wet slippery path. Narain found that hilarious and burst out laughing. They could feel people noticing them but at the same time, trying to avoid looking at them. They could sense scrutiny from the onlookers, yet and inching away followed form their looks.
They spotted a post office but it was locked.
They decided to approach the kids playing cricket. They took few steps forward and as if on cue their parents immediately rushed to the spot and took the kids home on pretext of dinner and homework, as if some sort of warning had already reached them. The protests of, “Ammi, tomorrow is holiday, let us play.” Or “Abu, I don’t want to go home.” fell on deaf ears.
Balraam asked Badrinath, the barber, feeling very positive of receiving an answer finally. But Badrinath after enthusiastically greeting him with a customary “Jai Shri Shankar!” confidently replied,
“One Akram Basit used to live here, not Malik. Check the name again. There is no Malik in our locality.”
The boys were getting frustrated now. The rains had stopped. It was getting more humid with every passing minute. The market was getting crowed and the air was filling with oily smells from various sweets shops. Jalebis and samosas were appearing and disappearing criminally fast.
They were on annoying verge of abandoning their search when they saw an Imaam walking into a mosque right across the street. They rushed forward and standing outside the building Balraam called out loud and clear,
“Maulavi ji, Namaste! Do you know where Akram Malik stays?”
“Yes beta, take a left from Omar’s teashop. Can you see that shop with the blue plastic shelter? Yes, from there. Then take the second right. After that count 4 houses from the corner. That’s Akram’s house.” said the Maulavi without missing a beat.
The boys said in unison with a triumphant smile.
“Allah Hafiz” wished the Maulavi to the boys.
Allah Hafiz, murmured the Maulavi, sending blessings for Akram, as he saw the boys heading towards Akram’s house.
“Namastey, we need to talk to Akram Malik. Call him out.”
A 25-year-old beautiful lady, clad in royal blue shalwar kameez with fine silver embroidery on its delicate fabric, had opened the door. She looked visibly nervous and if her hands were not resting on her heavily pregnant belly, then they would have been shaking uncontrollably for sure.
“Ji, he has gone out of town, I am his wife. Please tell me, is everything alright?” She managed to utter softly, and then added as an after-thought, “If he has done something wrong I say sorry on his behalf.”
Yogi sensed some movement inside the house and being the tallest was easily able to peep inside. He whispered something into Balraam’s ears, which makes Balraam to look into the house as well to see a man sitting in one corner, almost trying his best to hide while also realizing that he has been spotted. Balaram was sure that this man was at the barber’s salon getting a head massage when they had gone enquiring earlier. He annoyingly felt this entire series of events brought an unwanted delay in his plans, coupled with a severe headache. He massaged his head with his fingers and pursued further, “We are very tired. Can we come in and have some water?”
“Just some water, don’t be so scared”, Narain, who always suffered from laughing fits at the most awkward moments, says so laughing and the others contagiously join him.
Saima starts feeling scared of them and tries to close the door. Balraam blocks the door with one hand trying, trying to keep it open and ceases his laughter, saying, “Wait, Wait”.
Hearing this commotion, a person suddenly comes rushing from the inside room.
“I am Akram Malik, tell me what you want. Let’s step outside. Saima go in.”
They step out. Akram stands upright with his shoulders tight to show courage, when Balraam says,
“Namastey, you remember Kartik Sharma?”
Hearing this name least unexpectedly, colour drains from Akram’s face.
“Remember Kartik Sharma?” Balraam repeats louder.
“Yes” replies Akram, almost inaudible.
“We have come from his village, Gorakhpur. You did your schooling from there, right?”
“We are sure you have not forgotten that trip to the waterfalls you both had taken and what happened there.”
Akram feels his heart sinking and his knees giving away.
“Do you still feel guilty of killing him?”
“Yes” with tears filled in eyes, Akram chokes on the word.
“We have come from his village. When we told Gayatri Chachi; Kartik’s mother, that we are coming here, she gave us your details and asked us to meet you and tell you that, it wasn’t your mistake.”
“What?” Akram stared up at them with a sudden shock and confusing realization.
“Yes. You heard me right. I am Kartik’s cousin brother. Gayatri Bua wants you to let go of that guilt; it was fate and an accident. It was his destiny to have drowned because of not knowing how to swim. There was nothing you could have done. The current was too strong, the police told us that.
You left immediately after the incidence and Bua never got a chance to talk to you. She recently got to know that you live somewhere in this village. We have been finding you since hours.”
“But I knew how to swim… “
Akram was still reliving that dreadful moment, and suddenly came back to present, “Please! Please come in. I am so sorry, I… “
“No, there is nothing to be sorry about. Because of all the incidences happening these days in our country, the fear you all are feeling is, umm, jaayiz, that’s the word for ‘natural’ right? But we knew there was no point explaining this to all the people we met along the way. I was only trying to find you and deliver this message and this box of barfi Chachi sent for you.”
“Nariyal ki!” Akram grabbed the Tiffin with a kid’s excitement.
“Eid Mubarak.” Balaram opened his arms.
“Eid Mubarak.” Akram hugged back.
The customary three hugs, that were followed by a lavish Eid dinner and the sharing of prashad, that the boys had brought from their visit to a temple before coming there brought back hope, happiness and harmony, that the villagers had almost lost faith in.